LOS ANGELES >> When audio of former "7th Heaven" star Stephen Collins purportedly confessing to molesting underage girls appeared on the website TMZ last month, it did more than just damage the veteran actor’s career.
The recording, made during a therapy session and given to police by the actor’s estranged wife, led to re-runs of "7th Heaven" disappearing from cable TV and Collins swiftly losing acting roles. Three law enforcement agencies confirmed investigations into allegations that Collins molested underage girls several decades ago, although no charges have been filed.
The audio, which has not been authenticated by The Associated Press, will likely never be played in a court of law. It will, however, linger over the actor’s upcoming divorce trial, which is scheduled to begin on Wednesday in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. The audio’s impact will be a major issue in how Collins and his estranged wife, Faye Grant, divide up assets they accumulated during more than 25 years of marriage.
As a result of the audio’s release, Collins’ future earnings have been reduced to only what he can earn off investments, his attorney Mark Vincent Kaplan wrote in a court filing last month.
Few Hollywood divorces in recent memory have been as ugly and unsettling as the Collins case. The actor filed for divorce in 2012 and most of the issues in the case have been about money, although Grant included details about the molestation allegations in court filings last year.
Grant has said she gave police the audio of a 2012 couple counseling session in which Collins admitted to molesting young girls, doing so only after he refused to seek appropriate treatment. But Grant has denied giving the recording to TMZ.
California’s "no fault" divorce laws generally make the cause of a breakup irrelevant in court, and divorcing couples who don’t have an agreement on how to split assets acquired during marriage are generally required to divide them evenly. Collins’ divorce case will focus on how to divide property and earnings with Grant.
At issue in the trial is a pair of properties in the posh Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles and whether Grant should receive more than $13,000 a month in spousal support. Grant’s attorneys wrote in court filings that Collins is expected to have more than $5 million in assets once the case is resolved.
Beyond the divorce case, the Collins audio has raised a number of ethical and legal issues about how it was recorded, and what it now means that the revelations apparently made in the privacy of a therapy session were on a public website.
"Clients knowing what they’re saying in a therapeutic setting is confidential is hugely important," said Stephen Behnke, the director of the American Psychological Association Ethics Office.
The ethical standard is for psychologists to obtain permission from patients before they record them, he said. There are legitimate reasons why a therapy session might be recorded, such as reminding a patient what is said during the treatment, Behnke said.
He noted that while psychologists are bound to strict guidelines about disclosing details divulged in treatment sessions, other people in the room are not.
"I think that there’s an understanding that therapists control his or her office," said Benjamin Fenton, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in medical privacy cases. However, Fenton said it would be difficult to hold the therapist accountable for a recording made in secret.
"Assuming the therapist was not aware of the recording and didn’t consent, it would be hard for him or her to be liable to the husband," Fenton said.
Surreptitious recordings aren’t uncommon in divorces, business disputes and other situations where one person is trying to get the upper hand in a case, said Douglas Mirell, a Los Angeles-based media lawyer of the firm Harder Mirell & Abrams.
"People do record each other with some alarming degree of frequency in hopes that they can use it for what some might characterize as extortionate purposes," Mirell said.
That doesn’t mean, however that the audio can be used in court, Mirell added.
"It does test the limits on what doctor-patient confidentiality is," said Alison Triessl, a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer. She cited a litany of issues the audio raised, including whether the therapist reported Collins’ remarks, the timing of their release, and whether or not Grant will face any legal repercussions.
"This is like a law school exam on steroids," Triessl said.
Since Grant provided the audio to authorities, it is unlikely she will face any criminal charges, Triessl said. She might face a civil lawsuit from Collins over damage to his career, and it could lessen the amount the actress obtains through the divorce if her husband is no longer a working actor.
Kaplan has noted in court filings that Collins’ is unlikely to obtain work again as an actor. After TMZ posted the audio, scheduled re-runs of "7th Heaven" were canceled, Collins was dropped from the upcoming film "Ted 2" and he lost a role on TV’s hit show, "Scandal."